Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Literary Citizenship By Cathy Day


 Cathy Day is the author of two books: Comeback Season, a non-fiction novel (Free Press 2008) and The Circus in Winter, a short-story cycle (Harcourt 2004). Her stories and essays have appeared most recently in The Millions, Fiction Writer’s Review, and Ninth Letter. She lives in Indiana and teaches at Ball State University. She blogs about novel writing and teaching novel writing at The Big Thing.

Literary Citizenship

I’ve been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years now, and here’s something I’ve observed: what brings most people to the creative writing classroom or the writing conference isn’t simply the desire to “be a writer,” but rather (or also) the desire to be a part of a literary community.

Deep down, we know that not everyone who signs up for the class or the conference will become a traditionally published writer. Well, so what? What if they become agents, editors, publishers, book reviewers, book club members, teachers, librarians, readers, or parents of all of the above?

My students attend MFA programs, yes, and they publish, yes, but they aren’t my only “success stories.” Some are literary agents; in fact, Rebecca’s agent, Michelle Brower, is a former student of mine. They subscribe to lots of literary magazines. They have founded and edit magazines, too. They’re editors. They write for newspapers and work in arts administration. They maintain blogs. They review books. They volunteer at literary festivals. They participate in community theatre. They become teachers who teach creative writing. Most importantly, they are lifelong readers.

How do I know all this? Well, there’s this thing called Facebook…

Lately, I’ve started thinking that maybe the reason I teach creative writing isn’t just to create writers, but also to create a populace that cares about reading. There are many ways to lead a literary life, and I try to show my students simple ways that they can practice what I call “literary citizenship.” I wish more aspiring writers would contribute to, not just expect things from, that world they want so much to be a part of.

Here are a few of my working principles of Literary Citizenship:

1.)   Write “charming notes” to writers. (I got this phrase from Carolyn See.) Anytime you read something you like, tell the author. Send them an email. Friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Not all writers are reachable, so you might have to write an old fashioned letter and send it to the publisher or, if they teach somewhere, to their university address. You don’t have to gush or say something super smart. Just tell them you read something, you liked it. They may not respond, but believe me, they will read it.

2.)   Interview writers. Take charming notes a step farther and ask the writer if you can do an interview. These days, they’re usually done via email. Approach this professionally, even if you are a fan. Write up questions (I prefer getting one question at a time, but some prefer getting them all at once). Let the writer talk. Writers love to talk. Submit the interview to an appropriate print or online magazine. Spread the word. There are many, many outlets, some paying. I really like the interviews published by Fiction Writer’s Review, like this one.

3.)   Talk up (informally) or review (formally) books you like. Start with your personal network. Then say something on Goodreads. Then Amazon.com or B&N. Then try starting a book review blog. Or a book review radio show, like a former student of mine, Sarah Blake. Submit your reviews to newspapers and magazines, print or online. God knows, the world needs more book reviewers. Robin Becker at Penn State and Irina Reyn at Pitt are just two writer/teacher/reviewers I know of who actively teach their students how to write and publish book reviews. Remember: no matter what happens to traditional publishing, readers will always need trusted filters to help them know what is worth paying attention to and what’s not. Become that trusted filter.

4.)   If you want to be published in journals, you must read and support them. Period. If it’s a print journal, subscribe. If it’s an online journal, talk them up, maybe even volunteer to read. One of my favorite writers, Dan Chaon, had this to say about journals: The writing community is full of lame-o people who want to be published in journals even though they don’t read the magazines that they want to be published in. These people deserve the rejections that they will undoubtedly receive, and no one should feel sorry for them when they cry about how they can’t get anyone to accept their stories. You can read his incredibly practical advice here.     

5.)   If you want to publish books, buy books. I don’t want to fight about big-box stores (evil!) vs. indie bookstores (good!) or about libraries (great!) or how truly broke you are (I know! I’ve been there, too!) or which e-reader is “better” for the writer or the independent book seller (argh!). I just want you to buy books. Period. It makes me angry to see the lengths relatively well-off people will go to avoid buying a book. Especially considering how much they are willing to spend on entertainment, education, or business-related expenses. If you’re a writer, you can file a Schedule C: Profit or Loss from a Business, and books and magazine subscriptions are tax deductible.

6.)   Be passionate about books and writing, because passion is infectious. When I moved back home again to Indiana this past summer, my husband and I set out to buy bookshelves. The first furniture store we entered didn’t even carry bookshelves, the second carried only a single type, and the third (which we bought, because they were on sale) were really intended to be decorative shelves, not book shelves. Mind you, I wasn’t really surprised by this. I grew up here, after all. If you find yourself in a literary desert, rather than fuss and complain about it, create an oasis. Maintain a library in your home. Share books with your friends, co-workers, children, and community. Start a book club. Start a writing group. Volunteer to run a reading series at your local library. Take a picture of your bookshelves and put them on Facebook. Commit to buying 20 books a year for the rest of your life.

Question: What is the secret to getting published?

Answer: Learn your craft, yes. But also, work to create a world in which literature can thrive and is valued. 

41 comments:

Charlotte said...

What a great post, Cathy. I want to steal this to pass along to my students (with your name attached, of course). May I?

Just a few weeks ago someone recommended your book, "The Circus in Winter," when we were talking about linked stories. It's on my list. I'm looking forward to reading it!

Blythe Gifford said...

You are, as my editor would say, "spot on." Excellent post.

Cathy Day said...

Charlotte,

Yes, of course! I'd be honored if you'd pass along these ideas. And thanks for checking out Circus. You might also want to check out the blog post that inspired me to starting thinking about these ideas: published on the Brevity blog a few years ago: http://brevity.wordpress.com/2008/08/14/be-an-open-node-blake-butler-on-literary-citizenship/

Cathy

~Cheryl said...

What great advice on so many levels... and that said as a yet unpublished writer...there is so much out there where one can find
a place! Thank you, Rebecca and thank you, Cathy! Totally a wonderful read!!!

Melissa Sarno said...

I love, love, love this post! Literary citizenship is such a great term and I agree with all of its principles. Being a part of a literary community might be more important in the long run than getting published-- or, at least, I'm sticking to that idea until I actually DO get published! :-)

Lisa said...

This is an exceptional post, one that buoys my spirit. I love the phrase "literary citizenship" because it encompasses so much more than social media or platforms or the other rather confusing parts about authorship these days. Thank you, both Cathy and Rebecca, for reminding me why I ever wanted to be a writer in the first place, and also for such concrete, practical suggestions.

Lynne Perednia said...

These are all great points. And our Rebecca certainly demonstrates them every day.

doreen said...

Very good post. I have really slacked off on my book buying while I was writing. I am making up for that this year in a big way.

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Thank you all so very much for supporting Cathy and for always supporting me. I really love you all :)

Samantha Sotto-Yambao said...

Excellent post - insightful and absolutely true. :)

Lisa Lickel said...

Yes - this is it. Exactly.

2000irises said...

Thank you Cathy (and Rebecca!) for this wonderful post. Writers do (wisely) look to writing communities for camaraderie and support, but we don't often stop to consider our contributions to those communities. It's refreshing to be reminded we need not to just keep writing, but also to keep reading and supporting others' writing as well.

Becca said...

Best blog post I've read in ages. I love this idea of being part of a literary community, inclusive of everyone who loves good writing, and not just for those who are published authors.

That's one of the great things about blogging, and about book blogging in particular. As readers are able to interact on a more personal level with writers, we become more excited about reading and about sharing our passion with others.

I'm excited to share this post with my little group of readers! Thanks, Cathy and Rebecca :)

Melissa Crytzer Fry said...

Cathy- I LOVE this post. I never really thought about the "ways" we can lead a literary life (or the various occupations that fit the literary 'theme'). Your advice is wonderful, and I'm so happy I'm doing many of the items listed on your to-do list. Fabulous post and insight about the many ways we can be literary citizens. Thank you!

Galit Breen said...

Cathy and Rebecca, I so love this post! The concept of more than one path and purpose really resonates. And as a former reading teacher, so does the idea of creating a community of learners. Well done, both of you and thank you!

renita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dinty_w said...

Great post.

http://brevity.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/principles-of-literary-citizenship/

admin said...

Cathy, great post! I was a student in Robin Becker's book reviewing class forever ago, and that is where I first heard the term "literary citizenship." It's stuck with me ever since, and your smart guidelines really bring it back to the front of my thinking. Thank you!

BookGeek said...

This was a lovely post. I love being part of a literary community and am always trying to fund ways to expand it more. Thanks for these other great tips.

Cathy Day said...

@admin, I think what RB is doing is really important, and I'm glad to hear another source for the term "literary citizenship." I first heard it from Dinty Moore. I think we should all keep repeating it over and over and over...I'm really happy that these thoughts, which have been percolating in my head for awhile, are resonating with people

Fans of Rebecca Rasmussen: her guest post, "You Aren't Ready to Write a Novel," will be going up on my blog, The Big Thing, on Sunday night!

Christine said...

thank you for this. thank you, thank you, thank you.

artistsroad said...

This is a really great list, I need to do better on some of those.

I liked #1. Just recently I discovered #fridayreads on Twitter, where I give shoutouts to good books I'm reading. I praised a Sue William Silverman book recently, and she tweeted me back a thanks! That made my day.

Patrick

Chris Roberts said...

The writer, as an artist, owes nothing to the craft, only to craft brilliantly. The very nature of writing is singular and that is how it is produced, in a community of one. Everything and everyone else is extraneous, besides the point.

Fran said...

One of my professors made us write charming notes after we read See's book. At first, I thought it was a lame idea, but then I did it. Not only did it feel good sending them, it felt even better getting a response! And when one of my classmates sent me a charming note to tell me how much she liked my writing, I realized how totally awesome an idea it really was. :) Great post.
Fran

Doreen Fera said...

What an awesome post! I'm passing along to fellow writers. Thanks!

eeleenlee said...

THanks so much for posting this- it really hits that elusive nail on the head, whether you're part of a class, critque group or a book club.

Jessica said...

Wow, thank you for this. I often Tweet good blog posts, Cathy, but this one is so wonderful I'll be emailing it to friends and family, too. (Might even print it out and snail mail it to a couple folks.) Such a great message, I'm proud to help spread the word.

Christi Craig said...

Cathy,

What a wonderful post! So many great points, including a couple that I really needed to read.

"Work to create a world in which literature...is valued." That's just perfect.

And, I can't wait to read Rebecca's guest post on your blog!

Thanks to both of you.

Jan O'Hara (Tartitude) said...

In a fitting example of karma, I'm here because Christi posted a glowing review about this essay on FB. :)

I couldn't agree with you more. Gratitude and service - if provided willingly - generally give back more to the "donor" than recipient, anyway. At least that's been my experience. How wonderful to hear there are people teaching this at the institutional level. I have no formal writing background, so that's news to me.

Susmita said...

what an exquisite post! to learn to read and respect reading is as significant as learning to write ... oh i now know i did it right to buy all the second hand and first hand books with all my pocket money, often walking 2/3 kms to save the commuting fare. am sharing the link on my fb page ... am now eager to read your books :)

David Abrams said...

There are days when I get down on myself, feeling burned out by the self-imposed demands of blogging, figuring that no one is out there listening anyway, so why bother?

Then I come here, read this, and my batteries are recharged.

Yes! Chatter and discourse about books *is* important, it *does* matter, and--judging by the flood of comments to this post--there are a lot of literary citizens out there.

Thank you, Cathy Day, for perking up my morning.

Amanda Hoving said...

I love this phrase, "Literary Citizenship." Fantastic points to take to heart and follow.

drew said...

So well said. You covered it all!

Crafty Green Poet said...

Excellent post, i really believe in the need for people to fully engage in the literary communities they are part of, literary citizenship in the widest sense is so important, beyond the support it gives to writers

Hallie said...

Wonderful, wonderful advice! I think enthusiasm and spreading the word about a great book is such a great way to show appreciation for authors. All of your suggestions are great ways to express that.

I have the book-buying thing down. I am ready for another bookshelf as well!

Maggie McK. said...

Like other commenters, I love this post and the list. I'd like to add: Volunteer to help folks who don't have access to the literary skills/community/resources you have access to. (Tutor a kid in a low-income school. Lead a writing workshop in the local prison--or mentor a writer in prison via the PEN Prison Writing Program. Do adult literacy work. Etc.)

kittitianhill said...

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Jeanne said...

I had the pleasure of hearing you present this topic at MWW12, but it's nice to have it in writing for reference.

Thanks for reminding what it means to be a literary patriot.

Tom M Franklin said...

"Literary Citizenship" is a great phrase. Thanks for the suggestions.

-- Tom

EV Medina said...

I have enjoyed this blog article. I am learning so much now that I have my first book out and just trying to sell and promote it. This information is worth noting and using. Thanks!

Dale said...

what an exquisite post! to learn to read and respect reading is as significant as learning to write ... oh i now know i did it right to buy all the second hand and first hand books with all my pocket money, often walking 2/3 kms to save the commuting fare. am sharing the link on my fb page ... am now eager to read your books :)

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."